Henry James. (1843–1916). The Portrait of a Lady.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.
“Aunt Lydia, I have something to tell you.”
Mrs. Touchett gave a little jump and looked at the girl almost fiercely.
“You needn’t tell me; I know what it is.”
“I don’t know how you know.”
“The same way that I know when the window is open—by feeling a draught. You are going to marry that man.”
“What man do you mean?” Isabel inquired, with great dignity.
“Madame Merle’s friend—Mr. Osmond.”
“I don’t know why you call him Madame Merle’s friend. Is that the principal thing he is known by?”
“If he is not her friend he ought to be—after what she has done for him!” cried Mrs. Touchett. “I shouldn’t have expected it of her; I am disappointed.”
“If you mean that Madame Merle has had anything to do with my engagement you are greatly mistaken,” Isabel declared, with a sort of ardent coldness.
“You mean that your attractions were sufficient, without the gentleman being urged? You are quite right. They are immense, your attractions, and he would never have presumed to think of you if she had not put him up to it. He has a very good opinion of himself, but he was not a man to take trouble. Madame Merle took the trouble for him.”
“He has taken a great deal for himself!” cried Isabel, with a voluntary laugh.
Mrs. Touchett gave a sharp nod.
“I think he must, after all, to have made you like him.”
“I thought you liked him yourself.”
“I did, and that is why I am angry with him.”
“Be angry with me, not with him,” said the girl.
“Oh, I am always angry with you; that’s no satisfaction! Was it for this that you refused Lord Warburton?”
“Please don’t go back to that. Why shouldn’t I like Mr. Osmond, since you did?”
“I never wanted to marry him; there is nothing of him.”
“Then he can’t hurt me,” said Isabel.
“Do you think you are going to be happy? No one is happy.”
“I shall set the fashion then. What does one marry for?”
“What you will marry for, heaven only knows. People usually marry as they go into partnership—to set up a house. But in your partnership you will bring everything.”
“Is it that Mr. Osmond is not rich? Is that what you are talking about?” Isabel asked.
“He has no money; he has no name; he has no importance. I value such things and I have the courage to say it; I think they are very precious. Many other people think the same, and they show it. But they give some other reason!”
Isabel hesitated a little.
“I think I value everything that is valuable. I care very much for money, and that is why I wish Mr. Osmond to have some.”
“Give it to him, then; but marry some one else.”
“His name is good enough for me,” the girl went on. “It’s a very pretty name. Have I such a fine one myself?”
“All the more reason you should improve on it. There are only a dozen American names. Do you marry him out of charity?”
“It was my duty to tell you, Aunt Lydia, but I don’t think it is my duty to explain to you. Even if it were, I shouldn’t be able. So please don’t remonstrate; in talking about it you have me at a disadvantage. I can’t talk about it.”
“I don’t remonstrate, I simply answer you; I must give some sign of intelligence. I saw it coming, and I said nothing. I never meddle.”
“You never do, and I am greatly obliged to you. You have been very considerate.”
“It was not considerate—it was convenient,” said Mrs. Touchett. “But I shall talk to Madame Merle.”
“I don’t see why you keep bringing her in. She has been a very good friend to me.”
“Possibly; but she has been a poor one to me.”
“What has she done to you?”
“She has deceived me. She had as good as promised me to prevent your engagement.”
“She couldn’t have prevented it.”
“She can do anything; that is what I have always liked her for. I knew she could play any part; but I understood that she played them one by one. I didn’t understand that she would play two at the same time.”
“I don’t know what part she may have played to you,” Isabel said; “that is between yourselves. To me she has been honest, and kind, and devoted.”
“Devoted, of course; she wished you to marry her candidate. She told me that she was watching you only in order to interpose.”
“She said that to please you,” the girl answered; conscious, however, of the inadequacy of the explanation.
“To please me by deceiving me? She knows me better. Am I pleased to-day?”
“I don’t think you are ever much pleased,” Isabel was obliged to reply. “If Madame Merle knew you would learn the truth, what had she to gain by insincerity?”
“She gained time, as you see. While I waited for her to interfere you were marching away, and she was really beating the drum.”
“That is very well. But by your own admission you saw I was marching, and even if she had given the alarm you would not have tried to stop me.”
“No, but some one else would.”
“Whom do you mean?” Isabel asked, looking very hard at her aunt.
Mrs. Touchett’s little bright eyes, active as they usually were, sustained her gaze rather than returned it.
“Would you have listened to Ralph?”
“Not if he had abused Mr. Osmond.”
“Ralph doesn’t abuse people; you know that perfectly. He cares very much for you.”
“I know he does,” said Isabel; “and I shall feel the value of it now, for he knows that whatever I do I do with reason.”
“He never believed you would do this. I told him you were capable of it, and he argued the other way.”
“He did it for the sake of argument,” said Isabel, smiling. “You don’t accuse him of having deceived you; why should you accuse Madame Merle?”
“He never pretended he would prevent it.”
“I am glad of that!” cried the girl, gaily. “I wish very much,” she presently added, “that when he comes you would tell him first of my engagement.”
“Of course I will mention it,” said Mrs. Touchett. “I will say nothing more to you about it, but I give you notice I will talk to others.”
“That’s as you please. I only meant that it is rather better the announcement should come from you than from me.”
“I quite agree with you; it is much more proper!”
And on this the two ladies went to breakfast, where Mrs. Touchett was as good as her word, and made no allusion to Gilbert Osmond. After an interval of silence, however, she asked her companion from whom she had received a visit an hour before.
“From an old friend—an American gentleman,” Isabel said, with a colour in her cheek.
“An American, of course. It is only an American that calls at ten o’clock in the morning.”
“It was half-past ten; he was in a great hurry; he goes away this evening.”
“Couldn’t he have come yesterday, at the usual time?”
“He only arrived last night.”
“He spends but twenty-four hours in Florence?” Mrs. Touchett cried. “He’s an American truly.”
“He is indeed,” said Isabel, thinking with a perverse admiration of what Caspar Goodwood had done for her.
Two days afterward Ralph arrived; but though Isabel was sure that Mrs. Touchett had lost no time in telling him the news, he betrayed at first no knowledge of the great fact. Their first talk was naturally about his health; Isabel had many questions to ask about Corfu. She had been shocked by his appearance when he came into the room; she had forgotten how ill he looked. In spite of Corfu, he looked very ill to-day, and Isabel wondered whether he were really worse or whether she was simply disaccustomed to living with an invalid. Poor Ralph grew no handsomer as he advanced in life, and the now apparently complete loss of his health had done little to mitigate the natural oddity of his person. His face wore its pleasant perpetual smile, which perhaps suggested wit rather than achieved it; his thin whisker languished upon a lean cheek; the exorbitant curve of his nose defined itself more sharply. Lean he was altogether; lean and long and loose-jointed; an accidental cohesion of relaxed angles. His brown velvet jacket had become perennial; his hands had fixed themselves in his pockets; he shambled, and stumbled, and shuffled, in a manner that denoted great physical helplessness. It was perhaps this whimsical gait that helped to mark his character more than ever as that of the humorous invalid—the invalid for whom even his own disabilities are part of the general joke. They might well indeed with Ralph have been the chief cause of the want of seriousness with which he appeared to regard a world in which the reason for his own presence was past finding out. Isabel had grown fond of his ugliness; his awkwardness had become dear to her. These things were endeared by association; they struck her as the conditions of his being so charming. Ralph was so charming that her sense of his being ill had hitherto had a sort of comfort in it; the state of his health had seemed not a limitation, but a kind of intellectual advantage; it absolved him from all professional and official emotions and left him the luxury of being simply personal. This personality of Ralph’s was delightful; it had none of the staleness of disease; it was always easy and fresh and genial. Such had been the girl’s impression of her cousin; and when she had pitied him it was only on reflection. As she reflected a good deal she had given him a certain amount of compassion; but Isabel always had a dread of wasting compassion—a precious article, worth more to the giver than to any one else.
Now, however, it took no great ingenuity to discover that poor Ralph’s tenure of life was less elastic than it should be. He was a dear, bright, generous fellow; he had all the illumination of wisdom and none of its pedantry, and yet he was dying. Isabel said to herself that life was certainly hard for some people, and she felt a delicate glow of shame as she thought how easy it now promised to become for herself. She was prepared to learn that Ralph was not pleased with her engagement; but she was not prepared, in spite of her affection for her cousin, to let this fact spoil the situation. She was not even prepared—or so she thought—to resent his want of sympathy; for it would be his privilege—it would be indeed his natural line—to find fault with any step she might take toward marriage. One’s cousin always pretended to hate one’s husband; that was traditional, classical; it was a part of one’s cousin’s always pretending to adore one. Ralph was nothing if not critical; and though she would certainly, other things being equal, have been as glad to marry to please Ralph as to please any one, it would be absurd to think it important that her choice should square with his views. What were his views, after all? He had pretended to think she had better marry Lord Warburton; but this was only because she had refused that excellent man. If she had accepted him Ralph would certainly have taken another tone; he always took the opposite one. You could criticise any marriage; it was the essence of a marriage to be open to criticism. How well she herself, if she would only give her mind to it, might criticise this union of her own! She had other employment, however, and Ralph was welcome to relieve her of the care. Isabel was prepared to be wonderfully good-humoured.
He must have seen that, and this made it the more odd that he should say nothing. After three days had elapsed without his speaking, Isabel become impatient; dislike it as he would he might at least go through the form. We who know more about poor Ralph than his cousin, may easily believe that during the hours that followed his arrival at the Palazzo Crescentini, he had privately gone through many forms. His mother had literally greeted him with the great news, which was even more sensibly chilling than Mrs. Touchett’s maternal kiss. Ralph was shocked and humiliated; his calculations had been false, and his cousin was lost. He drifted about the house like a rudderless vessel in a rocky stream, or sat in the garden of the palace in a great cane chair, with his long legs extended, his head thrown back, and his hat pulled over his eyes. He felt cold about the heart; he had never liked anything less. What could he do, what could he say? If Isabel were irreclaimable, could he pretend to like it? To attempt to reclaim her was permissible only if the attempt should succeed. To try to persuade her that the man to whom she had pledged her faith was a humbug would be decently discreet only in the event of her being persuaded. Otherwise he should simply have damned himself. It cost him an equal effort to speak his thought and to dissemble; he could neither assent with sincerity nor protest with hope. Meanwhile he knew—or rather he supposed—that the affianced pair were daily renewing their mutual vows. Osmond, at this moment, showed himself little at the Palazzo Crescentini; but Isabel met him every day elsewhere, as she was free to do after their engagement had been made public. She had taken a carriage by the month, so as not to be indebted to her aunt for the means of pursuing a course of which Mrs. Touchett disapproved, and she drove in the morning to the Cascine. This suburban wilderness, during the early hours, was void of all intruders, and our young lady, joined by her lover in its quietest part, strolled with him a while in the grey Italian shade and listened to the nightingales.